First, the neighbors came, passing out American flags as the wind whipped down Hollywood Drive in Magnolia.

Then there were the local dignitaries, county freeholders, city council members, and state representatives. There was also the retired lieutenant colonel, a Vietnam veteran, in full regalia.

There was the state police cruiser, turning down Hollywood Drive, lights flashing. Then came the motorcycles, roaring past the two fire trucks blocking traffic on this quiet residential street in Camden County.

And then, finally, there was the compact black sedan carrying Army Spec. Josh Little home to Magnolia from Afghanistan for the first time in nine months. By then, the crowd outside his parents' house had swelled to about 50, clapping and cheering as Little stepped out of the car.

Overwhelmed, he stood and stared at first.

"This is an experience I'll never go through again," he said later, laughing, shaking hand after hand.

Saturday's fanfare was spearheaded by Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey, which organizes welcome-home events for military personnel in the area. David Silver, 38, a business analyst and the de facto leader of Yellow Ribbon, is not a veteran but devotes much of his spare time to welcoming them home. The ceremony for Little was one of two the group organized this weekend.

"A lot of people are guilty of not giving a second glance," he said. "We want to show veterans they're supported."

Little, 24, has served in the Army since 2010. A military intelligence specialist, he was deployed to Afghanistan in March of this year, serving in Nangarhar province.

The last nine months have not been easy: Little's unit, the Fourth Infantry Combat Brigade Team, lost several men in Afghanistan - "a lot of good people," he said.

He found out this fall that there was a chance he would be home for Christmas.

"Not a day went by over there that I didn't think of my family," he told the crowd in his driveway Saturday. "And I consider you all part of my family."

Wiping away tears, Little's mother, Rose, said she "couldn't have asked for a better Christmas present" - although, she said, she feels "almost guilty" when she thinks about military families who are not seeing their loved ones this holiday season. She has spent recent months in a state of near-constant anxiety, she said.

"It's nerve-racking, never knowing when I would talk to him," she said. "There would be times he would tell us he would get in touch, and then days would go by."

Little is planning to spend time with his family during a short break at home before he is sent to Colorado Springs. He will remain posted in the United States for at least nine months.

Neighbors called the Littles a close-knit family that has struggled with its older son's absence over the last nine months. Rose Little is a homemaker; her husband, Eric, works at an oil refinery; and their younger son, Jared, was engaged last week.

Rose "loves her boys like you cannot imagine," said family friend Laurie McHutchison, who has known the Littles for nearly 20 years. "It's like a piece of her heart has been missing these past few months. I'm so happy for her."

At Saturday's driveway ceremony, Little received proclamations and medals from county officials on top of his warm welcome.

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Albert Bancroft, Camden County's director of military affairs, showed up in full regalia. A veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, he remembers protesters "throwing things at me" when he came home.

"I'm one of the ones that made it through that, but there are a lot of vets who didn't come out of their shells until years later," Bancroft, 73, said. "It's so important for us to be here to let vets know we care."

Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 610-313-8112, at awhelan@philly.com, or on Twitter

at @aubreyjwhelan.